Monday, July 26, 2010


There is scarcely a place and period of musical innovation as rich as America in the 20th century. Here presented are the 100 definitive artists (and some songwriters) of this incredible diversity.

Artists were selected for their 'universal' appreciation, importance in their respective field, and influence. And a smidge of personal bias.

100. Nirvana

It is a little unfair to the pinnacle of Grunge to be included on this list: their influence has no time to appreciate when the limit is the year 2000. But the fact that "'90s rock" instantly calls to mind Nirvana shows their powerful legacy.

Yet, all said and done, Grunge was a very short-lived phenomenon, in part due, no doubt, to front man Cobain's suicide in 1994, a few years after main-stream success. Also it must be admitted that precursors to their sound were well on the way in the late 1980s (give the Pixies' Doolittle a listen for what Cobain was trying to blend with Beatles hooks.)

Key track: Smells Like Teen Spirit, 1991, which officially began a new sound for a new decade.

99. The Eagles

The Eagles' Greatest Hits has sold 42 million copies, so far, putting it in the top 10 best-selling albums worldwide. Essentially urban cowboys, of the SoCal variety, The Eagles reflect an interesting guitar-driven balladry rife with malaise and boredom.

Their impact on the 1970s was great, and their album Hotel California regularly makes 'best of' lists for rock and roll, albeit usually claiming a lower notch. Yet The Eagles remain definitively universal in appeal: you need only consider their sales record.

Key track: Hotel California, 1976, which perfectly encapsulates their ennui ballads.

98. Ricky Nelson

Ricky Nelson was the first teen idol. He was Elvis' rival, thanks to exposure on Ozzy and Harriet. Covering teen love songs was the usual specialty, yet his repertoire included many very thoughtful pieces as well. Many of his covers are now the radio-tested standard versions.

Nelson is now not particularly well-known, but those who familiarize themselves have developed a lasting fan-base. After the teen years he kept developing, avoiding be forever cast as a child entertainer. The best-known, slightly biting, hit from this later period is 'Garden Party'.

Key track: Fools Rush In, 1963, which showcases his teen idol voice.

97. Bo Diddley

Bo Diddley celebrated himself. His First two albums contain all of his well-known material: 'Bo Diddley', 'Mona', 'Who Do You Love', and the rest. His style was unique, his rhythm infectious.

His technique was repetitive, his songs formulaic. Undoubtedly Diddley helped start rock and roll; but of its pioneers his output is the least diverse, and one of the most short-winded. Within a couple of years his legacy was cemented, and he was out of the picture.

Key Track: Who Do You Love, 1956, which like most Diddley songs has been covered by scores of wannabes.

96. Barbara Streisand

Streisand is unquestionably part of the century's musical fabric. Her story is certainly American, and she has become an archetype of sorts. She has four Grammys and two musical Oscars to back that up.

Her hit songs are usually 'me against everyone else/the world' fare. As one of the queens of showtunes and standards her undeniably powerful voice adds gravitas to these sentiments. Countless are the number of people who hear Barbara and have to sing along.

Key Track: Don't Rain on My Parade, 1964, which let's her belt about being an individual.

95. Al Green

Al Green was a specialist. His groove was about love. He definitely shone as an R&B star in his heyday, and left a legacy not only in music, but population growth.

Green had a unique voice, great hooks, and passion. The flavor of his songs incorporates a fair bit of soul. There were imitators, but Green has proved to be elusively inimitable: followers always are found to be shy of Green's brand of emotive tenderness.

Key Track: Love and Happiness, 1972, which has one of the best grooves caught on record.

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